What is J.J. McCarthy’s NFL Draft stock? Michigan QB has quiet day in win at Penn State

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy entered Saturday’s top-10 showdown at Penn State right in the Heisman race — he sat sixth in The Athletic’s straw poll this week. He’s also maintained a firm hold on the QB3 slot in Dane Brugler’s 2024 NFL Draft rankings since the summer, right behind likely No. 1 and No. 2 picks Caleb Williams and Drake Maye.

Top-ranked 2024 QBs (Nov. 1 rankings)

Player School Ht, Wt

1. Caleb Williams

6-1, 215

2. Drake Maye

6-4, 225

3. J.J. McCarthy

6-3, 209

4. Sheduer Sanders

6-2, 215

5. Jayden Daniels

6-3, 205

In a hard-fought, 24-15 win over the Nittany Lions, though, the Jim Harbaugh-less Wolverines took it out of their QB’s hands and leaned on their run game. Not counting kneel-downs at the end of the game, Michigan ran the ball on all 28 of its offensive plays in the second half. McCarthy did attempt one throw, which resulted in a pass interference flag against Penn State and, thus, didn’t count toward the official play total.

McCarthy’s final stat line for the day: 7-of-8 for 60 yards plus 34 yards rushing. Included in that rushing total is a key fourth-and-1 conversion that McCarthy converted midway through the third quarter, pulling the ball after a play-action fake and juking a defender to gain 9.

For Michigan’s season (and its College Football Playoff chances), it was a massive result. For McCarthy’s 2024 NFL Draft stock? We might not have learned a whole lot, but there’s still plenty to discuss. Our draft experts break it down:



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Instant reactions to McCarthy’s day

Nick Baumgardner: I’ve thought Michigan offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore has been head-coach material for a minute now, and Saturday was further proof of that. Michigan’s plan clearly was to rely on Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards and its offensive line — a group that’s still filled with plenty of potential NFL talent.

Michigan more or less dared Penn State into a fistfight and Penn State — as was the case during last year’s Michigan win in Ann Arbor — agreed. The difference, perhaps, was that the Nittany Lions had more talent on their roster this year, especially on defense. Adisa Isaac and Chop Robinson were big-time impact players in this game and gave Michigan trouble in dropback situations, which is another reason Michigan stuck to the run.



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Diante Lee: Saturday’s game wasn’t about McCarthy at all, and that speaks more to Michigan’s dominance in the trenches than it does McCarthy’s ability to win a big game with his arm. This was an identity win, as evidenced by how much time Michigan spent with two backs, multiple tight ends or extra offensive linemen on the field.

Corum and Edwards each averaged more than five yards per carry behind an offensive line that punched Penn State in the mouth for 60 straight minutes. McCarthy didn’t have to throw the ball beyond the sticks to be effective, and that’s no insult to him as a player or prospect. He used his legs in the run game and on occasional play-actions to take advantage of Penn State’s defense.

This film may not go to the top of the stack in his portfolio, but that’s not a knock against him.

There’s a narrative out there that Michigan may not trust McCarthy to carry it to a win. Is that a real concern?

Dane Brugler: If that’s a narrative, it’s a silly narrative. McCarthy threw the ball 37 times last week in a win over Purdue. Game plans change week to week, and it was pretty clear that Michigan wanted to lean on its two future NFL running backs against Penn State.

And it was the smart game plan. What is Penn State’s strength? The pass rush. Running the ball negated the pass rush, wasted the clock, quieted the home crowd and allowed Corum/Edwards to consistently pick up chunk yards.

As frustrating as it can be for evaluators, Michigan’s priority is to win the game, not showcase its quarterback prospect. Making an assumption that the coaches don’t trust McCarthy to throw the ball is silly. Aside from making a few plays with his legs, this game doesn’t help or hurt the McCarthy evaluation in the eyes of NFL teams.



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Baumgardner: It probably depends on the game, but I don’t think that’s really fair at all. Michigan clearly believed it had better stuff Saturday at the point of attack, over the ball and saw no reason to do anything that might risk a turnover. This was a low-possession game (the third quarter might’ve taken 20 minutes of real time, which was awesome), and Michigan doesn’t have to throw the ball all over the field to win a game.

As we saw again Saturday, McCarthy has done everything Michigan’s asked of him this year — and then some. In a game like this, when the team had to change its coaching plans during the plane ride, I don’t think that narrative holds much weight.

Lee: There are some real concerns about how he’ll handle the true dropback passing game at the next level. He doesn’t layer throws well, and a lot of his best downfield passes are more a product of design than anticipation. However, I don’t know how anyone can make an argument that Michigan distrusts him, because he’s executed at a consistent level since taking over in 2022.

I will say this: If you want to criticize Michigan’s strength of schedule to this point, I’m right there with you. McCarthy’s offensive scheme certainly goes to great lengths to make the game simple for its passers, too, and defenses haven’t done enough to force the ball into McCarthy’s hands. But none of those things are McCarthy’s responsibility to change or rectify. I just don’t see the problems that some others do, I suppose.

McCarthy still seems to be in good shape to be QB3, but is he a lock to turn pro?

Lee: If I were advising him, I would probably tell him to consider coming back and join a 2025 QB class that won’t be nearly as entrenched at the top. Unless the NCAA has an axe over the program’s head due to the sign-stealing situation, Michigan will be primed to compete at an elite level again — and McCarthy likely would only get better with another year of Harbaugh’s tutelage (assuming Harbaugh stays around).

I think McCarthy probably will end up in first-round talks this year, and that would make it a risk to stay. I’ve been a big supporter of the younger QBs going back to school all year long, though.



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Baumgardner: Honestly, I don’t know. NIL changes everything. There were moments leading up to the draft-declaration deadline last year when smart NFL people were convinced C.J. Stroud (who had a higher grade than McCarthy will have) was going back to Ohio State.

McCarthy has been Michigan’s highest-paid NIL player since he walked in the door, and the athletic department’s entire approach to NIL (while not always smooth) is to “buy back” older players — as was the case this year with Corum and offensive lineman Zak Zinter. Michigan absolutely will try to make that decision difficult on McCarthy.

Same time, he does feel like QB3 in this class, and that’s still pretty darn good. Guys in his situation usually go pro. I’d have to see the other scenario to believe it, I suppose.

(Top photo: Gregory Fisher / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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